How Jewish architect William Krisel built a desert oasis

Thousands of residential and commercial buildings designed by modernist architect William Krisel can be found throughout Southern California. His postwar housing developments, cooperative apartment complexes and resorts stretch from the San Fernando Valley to Orange County to the Coachella Valley. 

Among the buildings Krisel designed over the course of his 60-year career are Hebrew Union College at USC (1969), Camp Hess Kramer (1967), Camp Ramah (1969) and Beth Israel School in San Diego (1960). He also worked with prominent Los Angeles architect Welton Becket  on the 1955 Mount Sinai Hospital on Beverly Boulevard, now Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, which was damaged by the 1994 Northridge earthquake and subsequently demolished.

Krisel built, by his own estimate, 40,000 individual housing units, including 2,500 tract homes in Palm Springs alone. His signature style includes post-and-beam construction, open floor plans in which the living room, dining room and kitchen flow together, large glass windows, vaulted ceilings and butterfly roofs. 

During Modernism Week in Palm Springs, continuing through Feb. 21, fans of midcentury architecture are paying tribute to this prolific man, including the dedication of a street named in his honor, “William Krisel Way,” a fitting recognition of his work introducing “desert modernism” to Palm Springs. Krisel, now 91, planned to participate in the events.

The festival also includes a launch event for an illustrated 224-page book, “William Krisel’s Palm Springs: The Language of Modernism,” recently published by Gibbs Smith. The book is the first major monograph chronicling Krisel’s work and architectural philosophy. It includes architectural drawings, renderings and photographs, with essays that draw heavily from his personal papers as well as the extensive archives of the Getty Research Institute. The book is edited by Heidi Creighton, a midcentury modern enthusiast who, in 2012, purchased a 1957 Palm Springs home designed by Krisel, and by Chris Menrad, a real estate agent and founding board member of the Palm Springs Modern Committee, who also lives in a Krisel-designed home.

Krisel was born in Shanghai in 1924 to a wealthy Jewish family. His father, Alexander Krisel, handled regional distribution for major movie studios, and such luminaries as Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin were all guests of the Krisels in Shanghai. He moved with his parents to Beverly Hills in 1937, designed his own architectural course while attending Beverly Hills High School and went on to USC. His studies were interrupted by World War II, during which he served in China as a military interpreter. After his service, he returned to USC, graduating with honors in 1949.

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This article was made possible with support from California Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.